October 31, 2012


Operation Barbarossa: Phase 4:  (October 2, 1941 – December 5,1941)
Operation Typhoon

Following the capture of Kiev, the Soviet forces, including trained reserves were significantly diminished. Stalin deployed reinforcements in a desperate attempt to defend Moscow and had been able to assemble eighty-three divisions comprising of 800,000 troops, however, only twenty-five of these divisions were fully effective. 

Red Army troops parade in Red Square before battle

On October 2nd Operation Typhoon was finally launched and the German advance towards Moscow had begun.  The German plan called for the deployment of two pincer offensives:  the 3rd and 4th Panzer armies which were to cross the Moscow Canal and encircle the city from the northeast.  They succeeded in breaching the Kalinin front and simultaneously destroying the Moscow-Leningrad railway. The Germans attacked Vyzama and Bryansk, entrapping the Soviet 18th 20th, 24th, and 32nd armies, effectively shattering Moscow's first line of defense.

Abandoned German military vehicles on road to Moscow 1941
Meanwhile 2nd Panzer Army advanced towards the south of Moscow Oblast against the Western Front (south of Tula).  They had taken Orvol, located 121 km (75 miles) south of the first main Soviet defense line, and succeeded in encircling the Soviet 3rd and 13th armies.  And 4th Army advanced directly towards Moscow.  Another German plan, code-named Operation Wotan was an integral part of the final phase of the German offensive. Incidentally Wotan was the name given to a Germanic God, venerated during the Middle Ages. 

German troops succeeded in capturing another 673,000 Soviet prisoners, raising the cumulative total of Soviets prisoners to an astounding 3 million.  There remained only 90,000 Soviet soldiers and 150 Soviet tanks to defend the capital city against a massive German barrage.

Soviet soldiers in German POW camp 1941
The German government felt assured that their victory was imminent and  had prematurely released public pronouncements that Moscow was on the verge of collapse and that the Soviet Union would soon be conquered.  On October 13th, the 3rd Panzer Army advanced to within 140 km (90 miles) of Moscow when circumstances changed drastically.  The temperature plummeted and amidst a continuous heavy rainfall, the unpaved roads were quickly transformed into muddy traps slowing down the German advance to no better than a snail's crawl.. Despite the elements, German troops struggled to advance but could only manage about 3.2 km (2 miles) per day.  In the meantime, their supplies dwindled rapidly.
By the end of October, German High Command ordered that Operation Typhoon be halted temporarily while the army units scrambled to re-organize itself. Yet another German delay gave the Soviets the invaluable opportunity to strengthen their own defence lines by bringing in new reinforcements.  In just over a month, Soviet command was able to organize eleven new armies which included 30 divisions brought in from Siberia, backed by 1,000 of their own tanks and 1,000 aircraft. 

German troops were on the verge of exhaustion,  besieged by the enemy, and beleagured by the elements.  It was deja vu. That Napoleon's invasion of Russia suffered the same fate was certainly not overlooked by German Command.  General Gunther Blumentritt had written about it in his diary, thus:  

General Gunther Blumentritt

"They remembered what happened to Napoleon's Army. Most of them began to re-read Caulaincourt's grim account of 1812. That had a weighty influence at this critical time in 1941. I can still see Von Kluge trudging through the mud from his sleeping quarters to his office and standing before the map with Caulaincourt's book in his hand."

By  mid-November the temperature had become so cold that ground had hardened, allowing the resumption of the German advance towards Moscow.  The Soviet 5th, 16th, 30th, 43rd, 49th, and 50th Armies had already dug in, and were waiting along the defense lines.

But the plans ultimately did not work out in favor of the Germans.  After two weeks of ferocious battle, the advance of the German troops towards Moscow was reduced to a virtual crawl. The Germans were exhausted and low on ammunition and fuel.  In the south, 2nd Panzer Army could not advance  - they were being blocked. On November 22 the Siberian units, reinforced by the 49th and 50th Soviet Armies, launched an attack on the 2nd Panzer Army with devastating consequences.  German troops were utterly obliterated. 
Then on December 2nd,  part of the 258th German Infantry Division managed to advance to within 24 km (15 miles) of Moscow, and were able to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Kremlin. And just at the crucial moment, the first Russian blizzard hit with a fury that stopped the Germans in their tracks. Despite this setback, a German reconnaissance battalion had reached the town of Khimki only 8 km distance (5 miles) from Moscow and succeeded in capturing the bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal, and the railway station.  But it was the end of the line. The Germans could not advance any farther.  

German soldier digging out from the snow Dec 1941

German Soldiers in the winter of Operation Barbarossa 1941

In the meantime, Soviet Command had reinforced its units until over 500,000 troops were positioned near Moscow.  On December 5th, they launched a massive counterattack forcing the German lines back to the west for over 320 km (or 200 miles).

German soldiers surrender to Soviets Dec 1941

Operation Barbarossa was ultimately a disaster from which the Wehrmacht never recovered. The failure to take Moscow marked a turning point which plagued German initiatives for the rest of the war.  German casualties in 1941, amounted to over 210,000 KIA or MIA, and 620,000 WIA (a third of which became casualties after the 1st of October). Casualties among the Axis troops (Hungarians, Romanians, and Finns) are unknown. Soviet casualties were in the millions.

German plans were ill-conceived from the start. No consideration was given for the need to equip their troops with adequate winter uniforms and suffficent supplies. As a result German troops suffered considerably from frostbite and disease.  In addition the severe cold weather had extremely detrimental effects on their war machinery; trucks, artillery and planes were literally stranded and inoperative.  Operation Barbarossa had come to a grinding hat.  Not even appeals to the German god of Wotan could restore German fortunes now.

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